It?s a different Matt Wieters these days. When the most ballyhooed young catcher in Orioles history came to town nearly three years ago, he seemed sweet and innocent.
Wieters? salad days are over.
As Wieters begins to start his fourth season?his third complete one?as the Orioles? catcher, he draws respect from his teammates and around baseball.
Drafted fifth among all players in 2007, Wieters rocketed through the minors, and by late May 2009, he was the catcher.
Andy MacPhail took over as team president shortly after he was drafted in June 2007, and was given the authority to sign Wieters. His agent, Scott Boras, had a rocky relationship with the Orioles, and MacPhail overcame that?signing him to a deadline deal worth $6 million.
Wieters didn?t make his professional debut until the next spring, and what a debut it was. In 130 games at Frederick and Bowie, he hit .355 with 27 home runs and 91 RBIs and played outstanding defensively.
In spring training, he looked overmatched at the plate, but once he went to Frederick, Wieters felt comfortable. Even though his statistics warranted a September callup, MacPhail resisted?and started him at Norfolk the next year.
The Orioles didn?t bring him up until May 29. He was batting .305 with 5 home runs and 30 RBIs, and performing well behind the plate.
MacPhail didn?t want to rush Wieters, and by waiting until late May, he did his successors a huge favor?keeping him under team control for another year?until 2016. Wieters can play nearly seven seasons with the Orioles until he?s eligible for free agency.
If he continues to play as well as he did last season, Wieters will be a most valuable commodity and an impossible one to replace for the Orioles.
He caught 132 games, making the All-Star team and winning a Gold Glove?both for the first time. Wieters threw out 37 percent of the runners who attempted to steal, and it?s likely fewer will try to run on him this year.
Wieters batted .262 with 22 home runs and 68 RBIs?both marked improvements from his first complete season in 2010.
Manager Buck Showalter hopes the acquisition of Taylor Teagarden will allow him to rest Wieters more often?or at least let him DH a little more. In 2011, he was the DH only three times.
Last year, Showalter raved about his catching ability, and when he appeared at FanFest, Wieters didn?t talk about his improving offense, but about his pitchers.
?You win with pitching. It?s tough to outhit the Yankees and outhit the Red Sox. You look at Tampa and they have five starting pitchers, and that?s how they can compete every year,? he said.
?I think the young starters we have?we?re going to give them competition?and make them even better.?
Wieters is still only 25, and about the same age as some of those ?young starters,? some of whom came up through the minors with him.
He just seems much more mature.
?It?s going to be a lot of work in spring training, getting to know the guys that have a chance to make the club or be there at some point? during the year,? Wieters said. ?It?s going to be a lot of work, a lot of communication work on top of that.?
He had no trouble communicating with Koji Uehara and doesn?t think there will be an issue with another Japanese pitcher, Tsuyoshi Wada, and a Taiwanese pitcher, Wei-Yin Chen.
?The great thing is that baseball is a universal language, so you can sort of get on the same page. I was spoiled with Koji. He was one of the easiest guys to work with ? we?ll find a way to make it work,? Wieters said.
?You see what their pattern is ? what pitches they like to throw in certain counts ? especially with a guy you don?t speak the same language as. You want to know what he?s going to throw on the mound.?
Wieters won?t be eligible for arbitration until next year, and if the Orioles sign Adam Jones to a long-term contract, perhaps they?ll start thinking about Wieters.
Boras clients generally don?t leave money on the table. If Wieters continues to improve, he?ll be able to name his own price.
Joe Mauer,? not a Boras client,? re-signed with Minnesota for eight years and $184 million. He won the three previous Gold Gloves and was the American League MVP in 2009 when he batted .365 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. Injuries limited Mauer to 82 games in the first year of his contract.
Boras will use Mauer?s contract as a gauge when the time comes to speak productively with the Orioles. Thanks to MacPhail?s foresight, that day is still at least two years away.